Tag Archives: 1930s

Famous in its day, now infamous: Coon Chicken Inn

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The long-gone Coon Chicken Inn restaurant chain claimed in its advertising that it was “nationally famous.” I believe that was a bit of an exaggeration – then – but it might be true now. Its present-day fame, more accurately its notoriety, is based on its objectionable name and use of a grotesque racist image on buildings, delivery trucks, china, glassware, and printed advertising pieces.

To whatever degree it was nationally famous it can only have been for its racist depictions. Certainly it could not have achieved fame for its food. The menu of the Coon Chicken Inn reveals selections only a few degrees more ambitious than the drive-ins of the 1930s. Other than chicken dinners, the menu included chili, burgers, and ice cream desserts.

coonchickeninnphoto1947

Nonetheless, in its time it was a popular chain of four roadhouse restaurants with one each in Salt Lake City (est. 1925), Seattle WA (est. 1929), Portland OR (est. 1930), and Spokane WA. According to one account there were also Coon Chicken Inns in Denver, Los Angeles, and San Francisco but I’ve been unable to find any trace of them.

In 1930 Seattle’s NAACP protested against the restaurant’s racist imagery. Under threat of prosecution the chain’s owners, Maxon Lester Graham and Adelaide Graham, repainted the grotesque black faces on their restaurants’ entryways blue. They also obliterated the words “Coon Chicken Inn” painted on the figures’ teeth.

coonchickeninnSLCDec291926Having avoided prosecution they changed nothing else, keeping the chain’s name and logo, all of which seemed not to bother the restaurants’ white patrons at all. I would guess most people gave little thought to the large grinning heads, having already accepted the caricatures as merely another instance of the widespread “comical” portrayal of black Americans. They probably also saw them as just another example of an eye-catching building feature employed by roadside restaurants to attract motorists’ attention. Few white people perceived the restaurants as racist.

The Coon Chicken Inns regularly hosted meetings of clubs, civic organizations, and sororities ranging from a Democratic Club to the Junior Hadassah. They were the sites of wedding, anniversary, and birthday parties. In 1942 they were listed in Best Places to Eat, a nationwide guidebook published by the Illinois Auto Club. I can’t help but think that the restaurant in Portland was a peculiarly appropriate location for an Eastern Star group that chose it for their “Poor Taste” party in 1937.

mammy'scupboardLike the word “mammy” and its stereotyped image, “coon chicken” was supposed to communicate that the restaurant specialized in Southern cuisine, in this case fried chicken. Mammy names and images were widely used by restaurants in the early and middle 20th century. The crudely constructed Mammy’s Cupboard in Natchez MS was another example of roadside “building as sign.” There was a Mammy’s Shanty in Atlanta, Mammy’s Cafeterias in San Antonio TX, and others in the South. Nor was the East without its Mammys: in Atlantic City was Mammy’s Donut Waffle Shop while Brooklyn had Mammy’s Pantry.

Several good articles have been published analyzing the Coon Chicken Inn’s everyday racism and the white public’s blithe tolerance of it. I recommend Catherine Roth’s essay for the Seattle Civil Rights & Labor History Project. Because of the volume and quality of what’s been written I hesitated at first to publish this post. I also hate the thought of increasing the desirability of Coon Chicken Inn advertising artifacts. Although there are good reasons to preserve historic racist ephemera, the extreme popularity of these images is disturbing. So great is the demand for them that the marketplace is flooded with fakes, including newly dreamed-up objects that were never used by the chain. Black faces have made a comeback along with “Coon Chicken Inn” on the teeth.

The Portland and Seattle branches of the Coon Chicken Inn closed in 1949 but the Salt Lake City unit remained in business until 1957.

© Jan Whitaker, 2014

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Revolving restaurants II: the Merry-Go-Round

merrygoroundLA1930sApart from amusement parks, I think of merry-go-rounds mostly in conjunction with bars. It seems they served as jolly imbibing venues in the 1930s after Prohibition ended. It makes me mildly queasy to think of them going round and round but presumably they revolved very slowly and presented no hazards to tipsy customers. [pictured below is San Francisco’s Fairmont Hotel bar during WWII]

MerryGoRoundBarSF

Even before revolving bars came upon the scene restaurateurs were dreaming up various sorts of revolving restaurants. I’ve written before about rotating restaurants atop tall buildings that let diners gaze upon ever-changing vistas spread out before them. California also had counter-style restaurants made with a revolving inner counter that held food in glass-enclosed compartments, almost like a revolving Automat, but without slots for coins. Some were round while others had a U-shape.

Merry-Go-Round-CafeNo.4Gustav and Gertrude Kramm were likely the first to introduce the merry-go-round concept to diners. Around 1930 they established two Merry-Go-Round Cafes in Long Beach CA incorporated as Revolving Table Cafés, Ltd. The corporation also produced the revolving serving tables. In 1931 Gustav filed a patent application for a “Café Table of the Traveling Conveyor Type,” for which engineer Harold Hackett was listed as inventor. It involved two conveyors, the top loaded with prepared relishes, salads, sandwiches, and desserts, and the lower one transporting dirty dishes to the kitchen. The conveyor traveled slowly enough, and the selection of dishes was repeated often enough, that customers could lift the glass doors and remove food easily.

merrygoroundcafeSFHot food, particularly main dishes, soup, and coffee, was delivered by servers who worked behind the counter.

Essentially the conveyor system was implemented so that the maximum number of customers could be served a fairly wide range of food inexpensively in a limited amount of space. The specialty of the Merry-Go-Rounds was the provision of full meals averaging 35 to 50 cents, an attractive bargain during the Depression. For 50 cents diners could order a main dish such as Ham Steak with Country Gravy and then choose two salads and two desserts from the revolving counter, along with all the relishes, rolls & butter, and coffee they wanted.

The Kramms operated some of the Merry-Go-Rounds and leased others. By the end of 1930 there were units in Long Beach (2), Los Angeles (4), and Seattle WA (1). Later Merry-Go-Rounds were opened in Huntington Park, Pasadena, San Diego, San Francisco, and possibly Santa Barbara, California. I’m not sure how long the restaurants remained in business but I could find no trace of them beyond 1941.

© Jan Whitaker, 2014

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Back to nature: The Eutropheon

rawfoodeutrophean1928Last week’s post on a recipe from The Aware Inn, an early natural food restaurant in Los Angeles, took me back to founder Jim Baker and his adventures with the Nature Boys. I learned that some of the members of this group, who lived in the woods, dressed like Tarzan, and ate natural foods, worked at a Los Angeles raw food restaurant called The Eutropheon.

Just by its name, readers might suspect it was more about spreading the gospel of raw food diets than an ordinary money-making commercial eating place. They would be right.

rawfoodTheNewJusticeJune11919A raw food restaurant, not yet named The Eutropheon, but very likely run by Eutropheon founders Vera and John Richter, was established in Los Angeles in 1919. It was evidently affiliated with, or at least sympathetic to, The New Justice, a short-lived publication dedicated to defending the Russian revolution [the 1919 advertisement here appeared in the magazine]. A story in the Los Angeles Times reported that the restaurant played Hawaiian music on a phonograph, distributed a leaflet called “The Truth About Russia,” and displayed a copy of the Soviet constitution along with a portrait of American socialist leader Eugene Debs. Its menu included uncooked soup, fruit and flower salads, and unbaked breads and pies.

In 1920 the Raw Food Dining Room had a new Los Angeles address, 326 W 2nd. In 1922, there was a Raw Food Dining Room, now called The Eutropheon, in Long Beach CA, as well as in Los Angeles at 927½ W 6th. How many of these were open at the same time is uncertain. There was also a Vegetarian Cafeteria on Figueroa serving “A complete line of Cooked and Raw Foods,” but this must have been run by someone other than the Richters since they were never known to serve cooked food. A Eutropheon cropped up in San Francisco in 1926, at 574 California Street. In 1928 the Richters had two Eutropheons in Los Angeles, one at 209 S. Hill and the other at 833 S. Olive.

There appear to have been very few raw food advocates in the United States, and almost no restaurants (until relatively recently), making the Richters pioneers. There were, however, some raw food enthusiasts in the US prior to The Eutropheon. Plans were laid by the Chicago Raw Food Society to open a raw food restaurant there around 1900 or 1901, but it’s unclear if it ever materialized. In 1907 a group in New York City held a raw food banquet at a hotel there. There was also a group in Cincinnati in the early 1920s.

rawfoodJohntrichterJohn T. Richter, as he was known in Los Angeles, had come to the city around 1918 or 1919, opened a raw food restaurant, and began lecturing on the benefits of that diet and other aspects of natural living. When and how he met his wife Vera is unknown as is anything about her background, but she seems to be a key figure in the raw food movement in Los Angeles. Judging from her 1925 cookbook Mrs. Richter’s Cook-less Book, she may have developed many of the recipes for soups, salads, grain and nut dishes, and desserts that were served in The Eutropheon.

RawFoodVeraRichterBefore coming to California, Richter was known as Theophilus J. F. Richter. At least 20 years older than Vera, he was born of German immigrants in Illinois in 1864, grew up in North Dakota, and earned a diploma sometime in the late 1880s or the 1890s in “Swedish movement cure” in Chicago, probably from the Folke-Kjellberg Institute. He married a woman named Violet in Chicago in 1891 and they had three children. After living in Fargo for several years, the family moved to Minneapolis and Theophilus obtained a degree as a naturopathic physician. Evidently he adopted a raw food diet around 1911 after taking classes with Chicago doctor George Drews. He still gave his address as Minneapolis as late as 1917.

The Richters received quite a bit of publicity for their restaurant from Los Angeles naturopath and gymnasium owner Phillip Lovell. Lovell also had a radio show and wrote the “Care of the Body” column that appeared in the Los Angeles Times in the 1920s and 1930s espousing alternative medicine and health regimes. Declaring himself a regular patron of the Richter’s restaurants, Lovell wrote in 1928, “To my knowledge, these are the only two restaurants in the country that function without the aid of a cookstove.”

rawfoodrestaurant1926Why Lovell’s career and The Eutropheons attained success in California is an interesting question. It’s doubtful the Richters got rich but the fact that their restaurants survived for about 20 years is surprising given that raw food restaurants were found nowhere else at that time. As for Lovell, he amassed enough money to commission architect Richard Neutra to build the first steel-frame ultramodern house in the US. It was completed in 1929 and contained a full-size gymnasium. I suspect that the reason California was such fertile ground for health and fitness gurus had something to do with the large number of people, especially the elderly, who vacationed or moved there from the Midwest hoping the climate would cure their ills.

Sometime in the late 1930s it appears that the Richters turned over The Eutropheon at 833 S. Olive to Milan Geshtacoff who had once been a kitchen worker there. How long it stayed open and what the fate of the S. Hill street location was I don’t know.

© Jan Whitaker, 2014

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Odd restaurant buildings: Big Tree Inn

bigtreeinn

Was there ever a building or structure so strange, so awkward, so ugly that no one yearned to turn it into a restaurant?

Chicken coop, stable, giant tree stump. Why not? Especially if it was likely to catch the eye of speeding motorists and get them to stop out of sheer curiosity if nothing else.

BigTreeInnHumboldtCountyexhibit1915That’s not to say that the Big Tree Inn, for instance, had nothing to recommend it but its oddness, but it certainly had plenty of that. Built from two sections of a redwood log it was designed to exhibit Humboldt County CA’s wood products at the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition.

The stump house, 20 ft in diameter, plus its associated log structure, was contrived by the Rodney Burns Redwood Novelty Co. and shipped by rail in sections to San Francisco where it was reassembled.

Following the exposition, a realtor in Washington state bought the log structure, transporting it to Des Moines WA at great cost. Then he added a kitchen and dining room. The odd building quickly proved a great attraction to gawkers.

The realtor’s intentions in buying the two-part building are unclear – if he had hoped to make money from the redwood structure he was evidently disappointed. For several years the property languished among the real estate listings even though it was described as “very desirable for a chicken dinner place.”

Finally, in 1923 a couple from Seattle, middle-aged and recently married Andrew and Katherine Swanson, bought the Big Tree Inn. Andrew was a bookbinder, an occupation with no seeming suitability for operating a restaurant. Katherine, however, had worked as a cook.

BigTreeInnca1930

The two managed to make a success of the venture, running it as a seasonal business for 20 years. A 1930 postcard shows Katherine standing in front of the Big Tree with her new Oldsmobile.

It was a popular destination for parties of city dwellers wanting chicken or steak dinners – or other dishes listed on the menu shown above such as Minced Ham and Pickle Sandwiches. In 1925 a Seattle newspaper advertised the Big Tree as “The Most Unique and Attractive Summer Resort in Washington” – On Des Moines Highway – Family Chicken Dinner, $2.00 – Special ½ Fried Chicken, on Toast, 50c. Not necessary to phone. We are always ready to serve.”

The Big Tree Inn’s location on a heavily traveled highway between Seattle and Tacoma was essential to its success, so when the highway was rerouted in 1938 the Big Tree Inn followed. The Swansons sold it in 1944. The building survived a bad fire in 1946 and was back on the market five years later, described as a “summer gold mine on main hiway” that was “ideal [for] couple management.” What happened to it after that I don’t know.

© Jan Whitaker, 2013

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“Eat and get gas”

EatandGetGasMO

When I first encountered that jokey phrase as a child I thought it was amazingly clever and funny. So did many adults, evidently, because over the decades numbers of roadside eateries adopted it as a catchphrase. Even as late as 1976 Stuckey’s was using it on a billboard near Dallas. A roadside gas station/café outside Omaha bore the equally cornball name Tank and Tummy.

AncestryChildressTXcafe

It wasn’t long after thousands of Americans acquired cars and took to the roads in the 1920s that all kinds of roadside businesses popped up to serve them. They ranged from campgrounds in farm fields to tourist homes and cabins, gas stations, tea rooms, and cafés. The Depression failed to stifle the urge to travel by car while inspiring thousands to try to make a living from passing traffic. Among the ideas included in a dispiriting little 1937 pamphlet called The Roadman’s Guide (“A Valuable Book of Money Making Formulas, Recipes, Ways, Plans and Schemes”) were carnival games, refreshment stands, and “eating joints.”

AncestryOzarkTavernWestphaliaMO

The gas station/restaurant combination was a popular one, often further combined with a gift shop or rooms for overnight guests. The logic is the same one-stop-shopping idea used by department stores: get customers to stop in for essentials and they may buy other things they didn’t even know they wanted. In Taunton MA in the 1920s, the Marvel Lunch and Filling Station not only had chicken and duck sandwiches on offer but also advertised “Stop and See the Trained Bears.”

Although it did tend to render them less refined, some tea rooms were linked to gas stations. Yet Duncan Hines’ 1937 edition of Adventures in Good Eating for the Discriminating Motorist gave a slightly grudging nod to The Old Elm Tree near Fremont OH, indicating “Just a wayside place with filling station adjacent but they serve a mighty good steak and chicken dinner, as well as all kinds of sandwiches and salads.”

Among those who tried combining gas and eating in the Depression – and succeeded – were Harlan Sanders and Gus Belt, respectively founders of Kentucky Fried Chicken and Steak ’n’ Shake.

AncestryTrouttCafeWoodlawnIL

Which came first in these combined ventures — the gas station or the restaurant? I’ve decided that in most cases it was – and still is – the gas station. And that might account for why so few roadside dining spots earn a reputation for fine food. Consider chains such as Stuckey’s, Nickerson Farms, and Dutch Pantry.

With superhighway construction in the 1950s and 1960s, highway stops institutionalized paired restaurants and gas stations, though by this time they were housed in separate buildings. In 1961 the Stouffer Corporation teamed up with Standard Oil of Ohio to test automat-style restaurants. They were not a success, but generally highway self-service food courts have proved acceptable to the motoring public.

Like many of the eat-and-get-gas highway oases before them, interstate service plazas also do duty as truck stops. But that is the subject of a future post.

© Jan Whitaker, 2013

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Dining on the border: Tijuana

TijuanaGardenCafe1922Borderlands are fascinating social and cultural mixing bowls. Their restaurants exemplify how variable these places can be. Lacking tradition as well as a local clientele and culture, there is little shaping them other than market forces. In Tijuana prominent historical factors shaping the market were drinkers’ desire for alcohol and restaurant owners’ need to recoup lost business.

The history of restaurants and cafes in Tijuana is marked by all the instability and calamity that the restaurant business is known for – and then some! Partnerships shifted, scandals erupted, and fires swept through the main street, Avenida Revolucion.

When Prohibition became the law in the United States, a number of San Diego restaurant, café, and bar owners – Italians, Jews, Slavs, and others — set up shop a stone’s throw away, in Tijuana, then a village of little more than 1,000 people. American visitors who began to head there did not go to soak up Mexican culture, but to escape restraints [see 1922 advertisement above]. Tourist eating places, all furnishing drinks and often entertainment, had names like Johnny’s Place, Aloha [American teens in Aloha Cafe, 1940s, below] , and Alhambra. Few were run by Mexicans and Mexican food ranked low on the culinary scale.

From the point of view of San Diego’s anti-alcohol, cafeteria-loving reformers, the drinking, gambling, and prostitution that went on in Tijuana made it a hell hole. Tijuana’s reputation, of course, did not stop everyone from going there, even many respectable, well-off San Diegans and Los Angelenos, as well as civic organizations. Determined to limit vice, prohibitionists waged vigorous battle to restrict passage by shortening border crossing hours, finally succeeding in closing the border from 6 pm to 6 am in 1926.

TijuanaAlohaCafeca1949

Despite the curfew, San Diego’s hotel and restaurant industries protested in 1931 that the 6 pm closing “ha[d] not prevented one single person from going to Tijuana,” and had actually reduced their business by 25%. They alleged that visitors went for the whole day or stayed overnight, enabling them to engage in more drinking, gambling, or whatever than previously. Tijuana flourished, opening more cafes, clubs, and hotels.

The better restaurants specialized in “international cuisine” which consisted mainly of steaks and seafood along with Italian, French, German, and Mexican dishes. In this category were restaurants variously operated by Alex and Caesar Cardini of salad fame. Julia Child wrote in her 1975 book From Julia Child’s Kitchen that she remembered going to Caesar’s for lunch in 1925 or 1926 with her parents. They had heard of his special salad and were eager to taste it. “Caesar himself rolled the big cart up to the table, [and] tossed the romaine in a great wooden bowl,” she wrote.

The border curfew was relaxed in1932 and lifted entirely in 1933. But if that had an adverse impact on Tijuana tourist trade, it was nothing compared to the blows delivered by the repeal of U.S. Prohibition in 1933 and a Mexican gambling ban in 1935. Tijuana bartenders correctly predicted few bars and cafes would survive. Sure enough, proprietors headed back to the U.S. Caesar Cardini opened a place in San Diego in 1936.

TijuanaGermanrestaurant

The tourist economy waxed and waned thereafter, thanks to such things as the 18-year-old drinking age, the availability of marihuana, and incidents of violence. Mexican cuisine became more popular in Tijuana’s tourist district in the latter 20th century. Richard Nixon, then Vice President of the United States, ordered Mexican dishes and German beer in an informal visit to the Old Heidelberg there in 1960.

Today Tijuana is a large global city, yet Americans tend to stick to the main tourist avenue as of old. There is a diversity of restaurants, many with Hispanic names and owners. Caesar’s has continued, off and on, since the Cardinis departed. Yet, as much as I’d like to believe a recent comment about it on TripAdvisor.com (“nice place to feel the real culture and history of Tijuana”), I have to ask, “Real culture? Real history? What?”

© Jan Whitaker, 2013

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Roadside attractions: Toto’s Zeppelin

toto'sAs alcoholic beverages made their return in the early 1930s, supper clubs and roadhouses offering meals, entertainment, and good cheer sprang up on highways and byways across the nation. Eager to attract customers, some adopted unusual designs that, on the surface at least, promised something out of the ordinary.

Toto'smenuOne of them was Salvatore “Toto” Lobello’s place on the main road leading from Holyoke to Northampton MA. It looked like the German Graf Zeppelin that was always in the news with tales of travelers gliding through the sky while enjoying its deluxe dining and sleeping accommodations.

The fantastic building was a type of roadside architecture of the late 1920s and 1930s commonly associated with California where sandwich shops and refreshment stands resembled oversized animals and objects ranging from toads to beer kegs. The zeppelin-shaped building was constructed in 1933 by Martin Bros., a well-known Holyoke contractor experiencing serious financial distress at that time. The nightclub apparently failed to open and, in 1934, suffered fire damage (for the first, but not the last, time).

In December of 1935, after months of trying to obtain a liquor license, Toto Lobello announced the grand opening of the Zeppelin. He solved the licensing problem by teaming up with Lillian and Adelmar Grandchamp who were able to transfer the license from their recently closed downtown Holyoke restaurant, the Peacock Club.

toto's1936The advertisement for the opening of “New England’s Smartest Supper Club” announced that drinks would be available in the Modernistic Cocktail Lounge, which was on the ground floor below the dirigible-shaped dance hall. With Web Maxon and his orchestra providing dance music, and a promise of “Never a Cover Charge, Always a Good Time,” the Zeppelin soon became a popular place for nightlife generally and for dinner parties of organizations such as the Elks and the Knights of Columbus.

Toto's1936ADVToto Lobello also had a confectionery business in Northampton located on Green Street across from the campus of the all-women Smith College. Like the confectionery, the Zeppelin became one of the students’ favorite haunts for the 3-Ds (dining, dancing, and drinking). According to an informal survey in 1937 the majority of Smith students liked to drink, preferring Scotch and soda, champagne, and beer. Toto’s ranked as a top date destination.

Toto’s Zeppelin served lunch and dinner and a special Sunday dinner for $1.00. On Saturday nights Charcoal Broiled Steak was featured.

One year after Toto’s grand opening the restaurant/nightclub faced a licensing renewal challenge requiring it to withdraw its application until unspecified “improvements” were made to the facility. But a more serious problem was about to emerge when dirigibles suddenly lost their appeal following the May 1937 Hindenburg disaster in which 36 people perished. Not too much later, in November of 1938, fire would also completely destroy Holyoke’s Zeppelin. In rebuilding, Toto chose a moderne style with a pylon over the entrance.

In the mid-1950s Salvatore Lobello, owing the state a considerable sum for unpaid unemployment taxes, filed for bankruptcy. He closed his Northampton restaurant, auctioning off all the fixtures in 1957. The building, at the address now belonging to a pizza shop, was razed. The Holyoke restaurant continued in business until 1960 when it was seized by the federal government for nonpayment of taxes. It briefly did business as the Oaks Steak & Rib House, a branch of the Oaks Inn of Springfield, before its destruction by fire in 1961.

© Jan Whitaker, 2013

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Famous in its day: Dutchland Farms

dutchlandHackensackThe Dutchland Farms story parallels that of Howard Johnson’s, its competitor and eventual conqueror. Both were chains of ice cream and lunch shops that began on Massachusetts roadways in the 1920s. But they experienced the Depression very differently. Howard Johnson’s expanded while Dutchland Farms shrank. Though Howard Johnson triumphed over its competitor, there is no doubt that Dutchland Farms strongly influenced HoJo’s development.

Unlike Howard Johnson’s, the Dutchland Farms chain grew out of a real dairy farm, established in 1897 by shoe manufacturer Fred F. Field. Years before the first Dutchland Farm dairy store – not yet a restaurant – opened in 1928, the dairy farm of the same name in Brockton MA had become nationally famous for its prize-winning herd of Holsteins. The ice cream produced by the farm in “28 flavors,” sometimes 30, was advertised as the only Grade A ice cream made in Massachusetts. (Most ice cream then was made from Grade B milk which has a higher bacterial count; now Grade B milk is mostly used for making cheese.)

By 1933 the newly incorporated company had 50 roadside stores that sold milk, butter, and eggs, and also served toasted sandwiches, frankfurters, and fountain treats, as well as “Chinese Chop Suey” supplied by Hung’s Food Products Co. of Boston. Soon the menu expanded to include complete dinners. Menus displayed Dutchland Farms “registered” colors, orange, blue, and white, which also formed the color scheme for buildings. The canvas awnings on the white building depicted on the South Easton MA postcard below would have been in eye-catching orange and blue stripes.

DutchlandSouthEastonFifty was probably the greatest number of Dutchland Farms units in operation at any given time. In addition to eastern Massachusetts where most units were located, the company did business in  New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Connecticut, and New Jersey. Some restaurants were operated by the company itself but most were franchised, as was true of  Howard Johnson’s. Women formed 10 to 15% of Dutchland Farms proprietors, a large percentage for a restaurant chain.

In addition to colorful awnings, Dutchland Farms buildings had two outstanding visual characteristics: orange roofs and decorative windmills which sat atop the roof or formed part of the building front. The roadside restaurants were situated on busy thoroughfares and both features were intended to attract motorists’ attention. Additional evidence of positioning for mobile customers were Dutchland Farms’ ample parking lots.

dutchlandfarmsIceCreamThe Depression was rough on Dutchland Farm operators. A dozen or more of the restaurants went out of business. Some proprietors shifted their allegiance to Howard Johnson. A Fairfield CT operator who opened a Dutchland Farms in 1935 switched to Howard Johnson’s after only a few months. Another, Louise Prout, co-proprietor of a Dutchland Farms in Lakeland NH and another in Pocasset MA, decided to go with Howard Johnson’s when she opened a restaurant in Cambridge in 1936.

Still other Dutchland Farms restaurants became independents. A proprietor near Newport RI rechristened his The Mile Post, while a Dedham MA Dutchland adopted the name of its proprietor, Mary Hartigan. The same fate would one day befall Howard Johnson’s. Louise Prout turned her Cambridge HoJos into The Clipper Ship, disguising the cupola, sheathing the front with dark paneling, and decorating the entry with wrought iron.

Dutchland Farms tried to reorganize its debts in 1939 but was sold to Howard Johnson’s in 1940. Johnson kept the orange, blue, and white colors but was barred from using the Dutchland Farms windmills on restaurants operating as Howard Johnson’s, and chose cupolas instead. However, some of the restaurants he acquired continued to do business as Dutchland Farms and, presumably, kept their windmills. The last Dutchland Farms restaurant I could find evidence of was in Quincy MA in 1951.

It is not obvious why Howard Johnson succeeded and Dutchland Farms failed. Was it because after Repeal Howard Johnson restaurants served alcoholic beverages whereas Dutchland Farms did not? Or was it due to how well the businesses were conducted? Or just luck?

© Jan Whitaker, 2012

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Modernizing Main Street restaurants

In the late 1920s the spreading influence of the 1925 “Art Deco” exposition in Paris inspired restaurants in the United States to remodel their exteriors and interiors in the bold new modern style. A leading trade journal, The American Restaurant, proclaimed in its July 1929 issue that modernism had become a notable trend in the industry.

Modernizing restaurants usually went further than skin-deep decorations and included new ventilation systems, dropped ceilings, concealed lighting, sound proofing, and air-conditioning. Many restaurants badly wanted to renovate their facilities, but by 1932 the Great Depression seriously curtailed funding for building and remodeling.

It didn’t take long for central business districts to decline, looking dowdy and down on their luck. Many towns felt if they could improve the appearance of stores in shopping areas it would have a positive effect on consumer spending. When President Franklin Roosevelt signed the National Housing Act into law in 1934, there was rejoicing on Main Streets across the country. Through government-backed, low-interest private loans, the NHA was meant not only to shore up the housing market but to stimulate improvements to commercial properties.

Towns responded wholeheartedly. In Mansfield, Louisiana (population 3,357), every merchant on the main business street signed up for that town’s 1935 improvement campaign and the local bank approved four loans the very first day. In 1936 sixty-nine New Jersey cities and towns were chosen to participate in Main Street modernization programs, with committees of prominent merchants, bankers, realtors, and building contractors presiding.

Retailers of all types took advantage of the program under the banner “Modernize Main Street.” Through architecture contests and programs sponsored by manufacturers of structural glass and other materials, a style soon developed known retrospectively as Depression Modern. Although it can be traced back to luxurious Art Deco styles, it was simplified and streamlined, and used industrial building materials such as glass and aluminum rather than marble and rare woods. As shown in before and after shots of the Harmony Cafeteria the new style was less cluttered than what had preceded it.

A new facade could be acquired for as little as $1,000 but some restaurants invested far more. For instance, in 1937 Joe Yium, owner of the Shanghai Cafe at 1004 Main in Dallas, sunk $15,000 into a structural glass front of cream trimmed with black, as well as an interior with new furniture and lunch counter all done in cream and deep “mandarin” red. Like the Shanghai, the Bohemian Restaurant in Portland OR [shown above] closed for a month while it was renovated to the tune of $25,000 with a front of black glass and aluminum, increased floor space, new ranges and steam tables, and a pastry department.

Improvements eligible under the program could include interior decor, air conditioning, and other functional modifications, but nothing symbolized hope for the future nor represented modernization more visibly than gleaming new fronts of shiny glass. Colored glass veneers were provided mostly by two companies, Pittsburgh Plate Glass Co. which made Carrara Glass, and Libbey-Owens-Ford, maker of Vitrolite [advertisement pictured].

Both companies offered complete storefront packages which furnished all materials needed, whether colored glass, clear plate glass, glass blocks, metal framing, signage, or even services of design consultants. Many of PPG’s model storefronts were designed by Walter Dorwin Teague, one of America’s foremost industrial designers. For luncheonettes, a PPG booklet recommended a design (possibly by Teague) using glass blocks and Carrara glass in orange, beige, and Rembrandt blue whose overall effect was “carefree and attractive” and — as you might imagine — had “high visibility.”

Coinciding as it did with the end of national prohibition, modernization paid off in increased business for restaurants, many of which took full advantage of the program. It confirmed the status of Main Street as the symbol of economic health for cities and towns in the popular imagination. However, as Gabrielle Esperdy points out in Modernizing Main Street: Architecture and Consumer Culture in the New Deal, decentralization of downtown shopping districts was well underway by the 1930s. But the modern transformation of Main Street maintained considerable significance to consumer psychology. The styles remained popular until the start of World War II when they were shunned as obsolete.

Today, in American cities and towns vestiges of Depression Modern storefronts, such as black glass panels above or beneath a show window, can still occasionally be spotted.

© Jan Whitaker, 2012

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Find of the day: the Stork Club

It seems harder all the time to find interesting things at flea markets and vintage paper shows, but I got lucky at Brimfield last week and turned up an unfamiliar Stork Club postcard. What is special is that it dates from before the nightclub/restaurant’s 1934 move to its well known address just off Fifth Avenue on East 53rd Street in NYC.

The postcard shows some of the “Stork’s” entertainers just before the era when its patrons became bigger attractions than its performers. When debutante Brenda Frazier, featured on the cover of Life magazine in 1938, started coming, attention shifted to who was seated at the tables. The early dinner crowd was followed by a late-night set of glamorous publicity seekers, many of them movie stars. Proprietor Sherman Billingsley installed a telephone at the entrance so that the orchestra could strike up an appropriate tune as celebrities were escorted to their tables. [William Boyd, aka Hopalong Cassidy, pictured]

To feed the celebrity mill, newspaper columnist Walter Winchell, always at table no. 50, informed all America of the evening’s highlights the next day. Billingsley had his own radio and TV shows for many years [a 1946 photo shows him interviewing some of the club’s stars]. During its prime in the 1930s and 1940s the Stork Club was the country’s best known nightclub. It’s closest rival was El Morocco. There could never be any doubt about the location of photos taken at the Stork Club thanks to the club’s black and white ashtrays and oversized matchbooks which always appeared prominently.

Nightclubs are a special type of restaurant in which food does not always figure too importantly. But the Stork Club was said to take its menu seriously, for example, flying in fresh crab and pompano from Florida in the 1930s. Unlike others, it opened for lunch. It had a staff of a couple hundred, about 30 of whom worked in the kitchen under longtime French chef Gustave Reynaud. In its best years it reportedly served 1,000 to 3,000 meals a day.

But I am not completely convinced that it was a diner’s mecca. Clearly tastes have changed, yet even by the standards of the day a 1948 menu looks like a real hodgepodge. Some selections are in quasi-French (Calf’s Sweetbreads Under Bell, Eugenie), others are standard American fare (Cold Cuts and Potato Salad). There are a few uninteresting specials stapled to the top (Minute Steak with Baked Potato and Green Salad) and a strange section labeled Chinese Specialties. And, 22 desserts?

Sherman Billingsley, whose background was in Oklahoma bootlegging and Bronx real estate development, began his club career in 1928 or 1929 when he took over management of several NYC speakeasies, one of them named The Stork. He bought out his mob partners, and when prohibition ended went legit. Sherman also ran The Streets of Paris at Coney Island and had interests in other places, while his brother Logan at one point owned a NY restaurant called Madeira House. He and Logan (the latter officially banned from Oklahoma in 1919 as a condition of parole) lived lives of contentiousness and court appearances – perhaps inescapable experiences for bootleggers, developers, and nightclub owners.

The Stork Club fell out of favor in the 1950s, a decade in which Sherman poured hundreds of thousands into defeating unions at his club. His lawyer, the infamous Reds-hunter Roy M. Cohn, told a NY state labor relations committee in 1957 that the Stork Club had been losing money for years. Nevertheless it ranked high as an attraction for out-of-town visitors for some years before its closure in 1965, in dismal condition. One sign it is still remembered is Ralph Blumenthal’s well-researched book, The Stork Club: America’s Most Famous Nightspot and the Lost World of Café Society (2000).

© Jan Whitaker, 2012

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